It Had to Be Her

Alma Mahler, circa 1908
Austrian National Library/Alamy
Alma Mahler, circa 1908

Like the stories of most notorious women, Alma Mahler’s is one of sex and power. She had a liking and a talent for both. Trailing a legacy of innuendo, anecdotes, and off-color jokes, she steers any biographer, however serious, to the enjoyable, lascivious path of the gossipy celebrity biography—but with better gossip and much better celebrities. She married or had affairs with so many important figures of early modernism that she has become, herself, a figure in the history of twentieth-century music (through her relationship with Gustav Mahler), art (Oskar Kokoschka), architecture (Walter Gropius), and literature (Franz Werfel). Born in Vienna in 1879, during the last hurrah of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, she died in New York City in the 1960s. Because she was an ambitious young woman who longed to be a great composer but became instead a great muse to great men, there is a temptation to view her as yet another female victim of cultural oppression. Because she was anti-Semitic, narcissistic, boastful, and untruthful, there is a temptation to dismiss her altogether.

Even in her lifetime, she was both adored and reviled. Was she an artist stunted by society’s restrictions on women who channeled her genius to become the inspiration for the men she consorted with? Or was she a grandiose groupie, expropriating the fame of her husbands and lovers? In a new biography, Passionate Spirit, Cate Haste leans toward the former view. “I like Alma Mahler,” she writes. “I particularly like the modern young woman who emerges from the pages of her early diaries.”

The Alma Schindler of her early diaries, which she began in 1898, is, indeed, appealing. They reveal an ebullient teenager full of serious opinions and enthusiasms, a flirtatious young woman giddy with the attentions of the cultural elite in culturally elite fin-de-siècle Vienna. Alma writes about crushes and kisses and assignations on the Ringstrasse, about vigorously practicing the piano and earnestly studying composition, about attending the opera, about buying dresses and fighting with her mama. She is a girl—a splendid girl in a splendid city at a splendid time. She is vain and unsure of herself, self-aggrandizing as only a serious, determined, sensitive young person can be.

The early diaries, published in English in 1998, end in 1902, just before she married Gustav Mahler. Alma lived for another sixty-two years, years of vainglorious strutting, scheming, and disloyalty, years chronicled by her own memoirs and by her later diaries (which have not been translated into English). Mahler scholars have a name for the challenge that arises from her unreliable tendencies: the Alma Problem. “She is routinely accused of massaging the facts to serve her own legacy,” Haste writes, “of suppressing or editing her husband Gustav Mahler’s published letters to remove critical references to her, for instance—acts seen, particularly by Mahler scholars…

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